On April 9, 2020, the ACLU of Kansas filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of people imperiled by dangerous conditions inside ill-equipped and overcrowded state prisons amid the raging COVID-19 pandemic.

“When inmates who are over 50 and suffering from diabetes or Hep C are forced to stand, sleep and eat within six feet of other inmates, we are literally putting people’s lives at risk,” said ACLU Legal Director Lauren Bonds. “This is an emergency situation requiring urgent action.”

The suit asks the court to grant the release of people who would otherwise find themselves exposed to the deadly virus. The Petitioners also have proposed the appointment of a Master to oversee the expedited release, to “reduce inmate populations within correctional centers and facilities, while preserving Respondents’ ability to object to the release of specific inmates.”

It also seeks appropriate support and release conditions, the immediate release of those within 18 months of release or are serving sentences for minor offenses, and the implementation of appropriate social distancing and sanitation measures to protect all other incarcerated individuals from COVID-19 in compliance with CDC guidance. 

“If this Court does not grant immediate relief on the basis of this Petition,” the lawsuit reads, “Petitioners request a hearing as soon as possible. Given the exponential spread of COVID-19, there is no time to spare.”

Kansas prisons have operated near or beyond capacity for years, and overcrowding and confined spaces make for a hospitable climate for COVID-19 to explode. Reducing the prison population makes prisons safer and lowers risks for communities statewide.

Numerous federal courts, the lawsuit said, have found that prisons violate the Eighth Amendment when they confine inmates in conditions where they are likely to contract an infectious disease.

People in KDOC facilities, for example, cannot comply with sanitation and hygiene precautions. Despite the pandemic, many incarcerated individuals still have restricted access to soap; those with a job where they make more than $12 per month, must purchase soap through the commissary – to the extent that soap is available. Indigent inmates who receive free soap are not given enough in their monthly allotment to wash their hands even sparingly, let alone on a regular basis.

Additionally, indigent inmates who receive free soap are not given enough in their monthly allotment to wash their hands even sparingly, let alone on a regular basis. Additionally, inmates in KDOC facilities cannot adequately clean high-touch surfaces. The cleaning solutions they are provided for their cells and communal areas are diluted with water and likely lack the necessary active ingredient concentration to disinfect high-contact surfaces.

People of any age who suffer from certain underlying medical conditions, including lung disease, heart disease, chronic liver or kidney disease (including hepatitis and dialysis patients), diabetes, epilepsy, hypertension, compromised immune systems (such as from cancer, HIV, or autoimmune disease), blood disorders (including sickle cell disease), inherited metabolic disorders, stroke, developmental delay, and asthma, also have an elevated risk.

On May 8, 2020, the Leavenworth County District Court denied the plaintiffs relief, based on a failure to exhaust administrative remedies before pursuing a claim for relief in court and a failure to show that pandemic conditions in Kansas prisons violated constitutional standards and required depopulation.